Tuesday, January 29, 2013

To Geek or Critique, That is the Question...

Recently, someone approached me about my review of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." This person was surprised and put-off by my critique for using words such as "tedious" and "unnecessary" to describe the movie. But not because I simply criticized something they admitted to enjoying, but something I myself had. 
After seeing "The Hobbit" opening weekend, this person and I "geeked out" over how great it was, dismissing the critics who dared make snarky comments about a world they didn't fully understand or appreciate. We were the real fans and those critics could go shove their opinions into a Oliphant's exterior.

I would proudly shout my love of all things "Lords of the Rings" from atop the Misty Mountain. After all, I'm the person who, at thirteen, dressed up for Halloween with her best friend as Sam and Frodo (plastic hairy feet included); the person who owns "Lord of the Rings" Monopoly, a day-planner, book marks that fold out into maps of Middle-Earth, a puzzle, a Sam action figure, a pewter jewelry box featuring Arwen and Aragorn kissing after his coronation, and a giant "Return of the King" poster hanging over my bed at home (right to the left of my "Harry Potter" poster, of course). Yep, I admit to all of that with unironic pride.  

So why didn't my review reflect that level of unabashed enthusiasm that I felt the first (and second) time I saw "The Hobbit"? There are a lot of excuses I can give to my fellow LOTR enthusiasts who felt like I just stabbed them in the back with Morgul-blade: that the 400 word limit didn't give me enough room to offer all my (OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE) feelings, that I was attempting to view the film through the eyes of someone not familiar with Tolkien, that I was hyper-sensitive to how my Hobbit obsession might be clouding my judgement, that I was trying to be objective in examining how it "worked as a film."

But honestly, when it comes down to it, it was my own desire to be a "good" reviewer that caused me to fall into the critic's den of lions. I've read enough reviews in print and online to know how they work at the most basic level. The way I absorb "Entertainment Weekly" is akin to osmosis. In fact, the idea of being able to write about movies, television, and books, to channel my over-the-top, at times sociological obsessions into a career is almost too much for me to comprehend. And when I wrote my review of "The Hobbit," I knew what I was supposed to write, what I should write, in order for my review to be considered decent, even if it's not necessarily what I wanted to write.

Though I do feel that a lot of what I said in my review was accurate from a critic's standpoint. But what about a fan's standpoint? Especially in regards to this movie where fans are the target audience, those desperately waiting for reviews to either ardently affirm or deny the space into which they channel their energy. And I, first and foremost, am a fan.  And as a intense fan about a number of different franchises, I hate reading anything that tries to undermine my enthusiasm.

So in this particular case, how do I stay true to my visceral reaction of "THAT WAS INCREDIBLE, I COULD HAVE SAT THERE FOR FOUR MORE HOURS!!! BIL-BO, BIL-BO, BIL-BO!" while also learning to emotionally detach myself and maintain some sense of objectivity?  How do I write as both fan and critic? Because it's impossible for those to be mutually exclusive in every case. I'm not entirely sure but it's something that I'd like to explore more in this class.

Maybe, however, the answer has to do with my eternal search for my voice, both as a writer and human being. Perhaps it's about being able to throw reservation to the wind and say and do the things I want and feel without fear of others looking down upon me.

I love the things I love. I love to talk about those things, I love to write about those things. I just love to love things. And even if I'm forced to recognize that not everything I love is perfect, it doesn't make me love it any less. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Long Live the "Queen"

David Siegel and his wife Jacqueline, 30 years his junior
A botox-laced former beauty queen with adjustable cleavage and enough money to build the biggest house in America isn't your typical heroine. But director Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, “The Queen of Versailles” takes audiences beyond preconceptions and surface level complexities and into a world both fascinating and tragic.
The film follows real-estate mogul David Siegel and his (trophy) wife Jacqueline’s quest to build their dream home –a humble 90,000 square foot mansion replete with a bowling alley, sushi bar, baseball field, and all other necessities for comfortable living. But construction on this modern-day palace comes to a screeching halt when the Siegel’s time-share venture, Westgate Resorts, falls prey to economic downturn.
Introducing the Siegels and their exorbitant wealth makes for an amusing start. It’s easy for audiences to laugh and groan at this caricature of the one-percent who give their children tigers for their birthday and cover their walls with ridiculous portraits of themselves. But not until some money is lost rather than flaunted does the movie truly take off.
Greenfield and her editors weave an impressively cohesive and structured narrative. David’s financial failings paralleled by Jackie’s apparent ignorance of them create a rich source of tension even before the stress of it all begins to chip away at the veneer of their marriage. Interspersed shots of the Siegel’s half-finished Xanadu remind audience members that a dream-home, not just house, may be at stake.
Admittedly, Greenfield got lucky with the Siegel’s misfortune; if things hadn’t taken a turn for the worse, the film may not have proved as affective if its initial purpose was served instead. But despite what some may choose to deny, peering into this Fortune Five-Hundred world does evoke a fascination that makes it just as easy to envy as it is to criticize.
This past week, Greenfield won a defamation lawsuit brought against her by Siegel who claimed the documentary damaged his company’s reputation (not to mention his own). Indeed, David comes across as a Hugh Hefner/Ebenezer Scrooge hybrid, villainous enough to make Jackie “the hero” by default.
During one interview, Jackie states that all she ever wanted was to be adored. While “adore” may be a strong word, her audience undoubtedly feels at least one thing for Jackie: pity. And provoking pity—if not sympathy—for someone who appears more fabricated that flesh is an achievement in itself.   

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An Ode to "Fringe"

This past Friday, I said goodbye to a group of people who I love deeply. People I encountered while on study abroad and with whom I quickly became fast friends. People who I came to rely on more so than my closest friends and family. They also just happened to be people who didn't actually exist. Except maybe in a parallel universe.
A scene from the series finale "Liberty/An Enemy of Fate"
 The 2 hour finale/100th episode  of the sci-fi drama "Fringe" aired Friday. While critically acclaimed low-rated shows are my preferential cup of tea, "Fringe" was truly a rare specimen with a exceptionally small but loyal following. Lots of sci-fi shows like "Firefly," "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer," "Lost," and "Battlestar Galactica" are considered classics and are known through name recognition if not through actual viewing. For some reason, I feel like "Fringe" has flown even further under the radar, and maybe people will rediscover it in ten years, or maybe not. But honestly, as much as I love sharing television shows with other people, theorizing and obsessing, "Fringe" is a show I'm just happy to have found, whether or not I have someone to talk about it with.
I can't quite explain why I love it so much. Although man-candy, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop (perhaps a man superior even to Pacey Witter, his character on "Dawson's Creek") definitely is part of it. Anna Torv as protagonist Olivia Dunham is a powerful woman, something I love/search out in television (the prevalence of strong women in sci-fi is a whole other post waiting to be written). And dammit if John Noble hasn't been robbed, ROBBED!, of recognition for his role as Walter Bishop.
"Fringe's" iconic white tulip
But maybe the real reason, besides all the crazy-awesome plots about parallel universes, time travel, and human experimentation, is best summed up in a line from "Parks and Recreation" where nerdy lover-boy Ben is defending "Game of Thrones, "They're telling human stories in a fantasy world." All the characters in "Fringe" feel very real. They develop and grow, harbor anger and resentment about their pasts. But above all, these characters function as a family.
Since this is the basis for a portion of my SIP, I won't go into detail except to say that this show served as a type of emotional catharsis. I escaped to the weird world of "Fringe" not because it made me forget about certain things, but because I suppressed certain demons using the characters as proxies (this entire post might be evidence that I'm in major need of some therapy). 
Someone once told me that my passion for television and film comes from a desire to see things work out the way they should. Now during the finale, I cried. A lot. I was upset about certain events, but knew that it was the way things had to be and I left the episode feeling more satisfied than usual with a series finale. Things worked out maybe not the way I wanted them to, but they way they should have. 
Executive Producer Joel Wyman said, "“I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, and to be able to tell this story about a family—a family that, through everything, fought together for survival—has been the highlight of my career.”  To say it's been a highlight for me too is an understatement.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Coming Back to "The Hobbit": Revised Review

In an early scene of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf rumbles good-naturedly that “All good stories deserve embellishing.” Director Peter Jackson takes this insight too much to heart with his latest venture into J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

The 166 minute prequel follows the basic formula of its predecessors: A reluctant hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), leaves his hole in the ground to join a band of misfits on an adventure. This time, it’s a group of Seussian-named dwarves led by dwarf-prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) seeking to reclaim their kingdom from a gold-hoarding dragon named Smaug. 

The dwarves are amusing, but they’re indistinguishable and individually don’t garner audience affection. Put another way: If one gets shot with an arrow, you still have twelve left. And while the story gets off to a delightful start with their invasion of Bilbo’s home, it grows tiresome as it relentlessly cycles through different monsters for our journeyers to battle or elude. 

Yet the greatest disservice to the film is Bilbo’s relegation to the sidelines for much of the second act. Playing Bilbo as an English gentleman with childish curiosity and wonder, Freeman’s performance is wonderfully charming. His and the franchise’s quasi-mascot Gollum’s game of riddles is the most devilishly fun sequence in the film as Gollum vacillates between Jekyll and Hyde personas; it’s also the most technically masterful.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Andy Serkis (Gollum) are the
highlights of "The Hobbit"
The light dancing in Gollum’s eyes alone demonstrates the immense advancement made in motion-capture technology since his last appearance on-screen. Andy Serkis, who portrays Gollum, is as emotive and nuanced as any actor sans CGI-makeover and easily steals the show from his live action counterparts.   
Jackson cleverly frames the story to allow for memorable characters to return in his new trilogy and desperately wants to create a film with as much emotional resonance as Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, his source material just doesn’t offer the same level of complexity. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s fable, prompting Jackson to supplement his more mature film using the appendices of Return of the King.  

And perhaps this is the film’s central weakness: the nostalgia it evokes for the films that came before The Hobbit or rather the stories that come after. What Bilbo describes as “butter scraped over too much bread,” is Jackson’s attempt to stretch a fairy tale into an epic that leaves audiences longing for a little something more. 

NYT Defense: "Ripper Street"

Mike Hale presents a successful mixed review of “Ripper Street,” weaving back and forth between its high and low points. Since the show is produced in Britain, he offers reference points—“Law & Order” and “The Walking Dead”—for an American audience reading the review. He also acknowledges this audience at the end when, after critiquing the less original points of the show relative to other British and Canadian television, he writes that it has a more unique feel for Americans.

Hale leads in with two themes of the show: violence and sex. The sensationalism draws the reader in and also serves to summarize the show. He examines performance and chemistry between actors, simultaneously giving small details about the series content.

While he talks about the negative points, he also offers up positives, allowing readers to weigh the pros and cons of tuning in. The way he bounces back and forth does not push them in one direction or the other. It pulls readers through the review, keeping them engaged as they learn about the show. This is a unique review since it presents a British show to American audiences. It is helpful to look at when considering how to critique foreign material.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Drunk Oscars: The Golden Globes

To say I look forward to the Golden Globes each year is an understatement. My anticipation is palpable to everyone around me in the week preceding the awards show as I develop a nervous spasm where, at any moment, I might shout, "THE GLOBES!" I don't necessarily know why this is since there a lot of things about the Golden Globes that I don't agree with, like how they clump musicals and comedies into one category (Les Miz versus Silver Linings Playbook?) or even what they define as a musical (2011's My Week With Marilyn?). Or more specific to this year, I cannot fathom how NBC's Smash could be nominated over the network's other shows like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, or Community or over FX's Louie in the award for best television comedy or musical (I mean, at least Louie is on cable). So what is it about The Golden Globes that I enjoy so much? At the most basic level, I think it can be summed up in the nickname I've lovingly assigned to the ceremony: Drunk Oscars.

Celebrities sit around tables, get jammed into corners of booths and are forced to interact with one another. I could sit and watch three hours of pre-recorded schmoozing just for the satisfaction of seeing Clooney talking to Jack Black or Jon Hamm talking to Nicole Kidman or Quentin Tarantino talking to himself. Now I love watching the Oscars, but you just don't get that same alcohol fueled energy you do with the Globes. People's speeches tend to be a little zanier and presenters seem less nervous or flustered. Plus, the constant barrage of champagne makes it harder for the losers to conceal their hard-feelings during reaction shots (unless of course you're Taylor Swift and you don't even try to look gracious when someone with actual talent beats you. Adele, I love you).

So to honor the night presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, here are my favorite moments from the 2013 Golden Globes

1. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's opening monologue. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler burning James Cameron, James Franco, Taylor Swift, and Lena Dunham. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's wardrobe. Tine Fey and Amy Poehler. Period.

2. The only thing better than Adele's singing voice is her speaking voice. I could listen to her cackle and say things like "ahoy" and "we're getting pissed" all night long.

3. Glen Close (pretending?) to be drunk. That should be shown in her memorial reel.

4. Kristin Wiig (doing her SNL Taylor Swift impression) and Will Ferrell presenting the award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Tommy Lee Jones was not amused so you know it was good.

5. Amy Poehler sitting on George Clooney's lap. Thinks Will Arnett to himself: "I've made a terrible mistake."

6. Ben Affleck winning Best Director. After getting snubbed by the Academy, I was sincerely glad he got his moment in the spotlight (without standing next to Matt Damon). Argo was one of my favorite films this year and Affleck deserves the recognition.

7. Argo winning Best Picture- Drama. Really, I would have been fine with any of the nominees, but I took pleasure in Argo's win because it felt like a legitimate surprise (something rare during awards season). Also because Chris Messina is in it and his chiseled jaw occupies my thoughts when I'm washing dishes.

The Hobbit: Back to the Future

In an early scene of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf rumbles good-naturedly that “All good stories deserve embellishing.” Yet it seems director Peter Jackson took this insight too much to heart with his latest venture into J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Property of New Line Cinema
The 166 minute prequel to the Lord of the Rings, the first in an (excessive) trilogy, follows the basic formula of its predecessors: A reluctant hobbit leaves his hole in the ground to join a band of misfits on an adventure. The titular furry-footed hobbit in question is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). His solitary life of books and crocheted doilies is disrupted when the wizard Gandalf and a group of dwarves invade his home. The company, led by dwarf-prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), seeks to reclaim the kingdom Erebor, guarded by the gold-hoarding dragon, Smaug; Bilbo is to be their burglar.  

Freeman is wonderfully charming as Bilbo, playing him as an English gentleman with a child’s curiosity and wonder. Yet his character goes silent for much of the second act, which proves a great disservice to the film. For around this same time, the action grows tedious as it relentlessly cycles through trolls, orcs, goblins, and more even orcs for our journeyers to battle or elude.

However, the story redeems itself later with the reappearance the franchise’s quasi-mascot, Gollum. His and Bilbo’s game of riddles is not only the most devilishly fun sequence in the film, with Gollum vacillating between his Jekyll and Hyde personas, it’s also the most technically masterful. The light dancing in Gollum’s eyes alone demonstrates the immense advancement made in motion-capture technology since his last appearance on-screen. Andy Serkis, who portrays Gollum, is just as emotive and nuanced as any actor sans CGI makeover and easily steals the show from his live action counterparts.       
Fans of the Lord of the Rings will delight in seeing other familiar faces like Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Cate Blanchett’s ethereal Galadriel and Jackson cleverly frames the story to allow even more memorable characters to return in subsequent films. But perhaps this is part of the film’s weakness: the nostalgia it evokes for the films that came before The Hobbit or rather the stories that come after. Jackson found cinematic magic once before, but unfortunately it seems that getting there once doesn't always mean you can go back again.